Site icon One for the Money Two for the Road

Tumacacori National Historical Park

Where is Tumacacori National Historical Park?

Tumacacori (pronounced tooma-cockery) is located in Tumacacori, Arizona. The park site is approximately 50 miles south of Tucson and 20 miles north of the Mexican border town of Nogales on Interstate 19.

Tumacacori’s visitor center has our vote for one of the prettiest visitor centers we’ve seen, and it is a designated National Historic Landmark.

The park features:

Access the park’s website here.

Visitor center courtyard and garden, constructed in 1939.

Why is Tumacacori significant?

As with all of the southwestern US missions, Tumacacori’s lands were once the home of Native American people. Southern Arizona was the homeland of the O’odham (pronounced ah-dum, similar to autumn) who were hunters, gatherers, and farmers. Padre Eusebio Kimo, a Jesuit priest, founded the first area mission in 1691 along the Santa Cruz River south of the current park site. He named the new mission San Cayatano de Tumacacori. Shortly thereafter, Padre Kimo founded a second mission, San Angeles de Guevavi, about 15 miles upriver from the first Tumacacori. Another Jesuit priest founded the area’s third mission, San Cayatano de Calabazas. Tumacacori National Historical Park protects the ruins of the three missions and is located on the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail.

San Jose de Tumacacori Church

In 1751, more than 100 people, including two priests, were killed when O’odham rebels staged a rebellion. The fear of additional raids caused many of the mission’s residents to leave. Therefore, in order to make a better home for the mission’s residents, Padre Kimo’s first Arizona mission was relocated to what is now the park site and renamed San Jose de Tumacacori.

Mission San Jose de Tumacacori church

Mission San Jose Tumacacori’s second church was never fully completed, although it was dedicated in 1822 and used until Tumacacori was abandoned in 1848.

Ruins include the footings of the original Jesuit church and part of the convento (the priests’ living quarters).

In 1767, the Spanish governor ordered all Jesuit priests out of his domains and into exile. He then sent Franciscan priests to replace them. Therefore, it was under the direction of Franciscan priest Fray Gutierrez that construction began on Tumacacori’s three-story church in 1800. 

A view of the nave from the front doors.

Still partially covered in their original lime plaster, the thick adobe walls continue to stand strong. A baptistry was to the right of the front doors, and above it on the second story was the choir preparation room. The choir loft was once above the front doors, and the sacristy (priest’s office) was to the right of the sanctuary. Worshipers stood or knelt during mass as there were no pews in the church.

The sanctuary.

Shadows of picture frames and other embellishments that once adorned the church are still visible. Some original paint and stenciling can still be seen as well.

East view showing the church’s white dome and the white barrel-vaulted ceiling of the sacristy.

The Bell Tower

Scalloped niches were used to hold statues of saints.

Tumacacori church’s three-story bell tower begins at ground level with the baptistry, the second level choir preparation room, and the third level arched tower. Originally each arch held a bell, and the bells were rung several times a day for various reasons. Nobody knows what happened to the original bells, but they were likely taken by vandals and melted down for other uses. Constructed of fired bricks, the tower was to have originally been covered in white plaster, but that was never done. It is uncertain whether the tower was to have had a white dome to match the church. Interestingly, the adobe walls of the baptistry and choir preparation room are nine feet thick in order to hold the weight of the bell tower.

San Jose de Tumacacori Cemetery

Most missions had a church cemetery, and Tumacacori was no different. White walls surrounded the little cemetery which is located behind the church. Nooks that would have held the 14 Stations of the Cross are still visible in the thick wall. There are some graves in the Tumacacori cemetery, although none of them are original to the functioning mission. Sadly, the cemetery’s original graves were desecrated by vandals and grave robbers after the mission was abandoned. Then adding insult to injury, the cemetery was used for a time as a cattle corral.

Mortuary chapel

The round building above sits in the middle of the cemetery and is the unfinished mortuary chapel, which when completed was to have had a white domed roof. Mortuary chapels were used to hold vigils for the dead before they were buried.

This view shows the mortuary chapel with the church in the background.

Years later, people in the surrounding community began burying their dead in the cemetery. The last burial, an infant, took place in 1916.

The Museum

Set up in time-line style, the outstanding museum covers the history of the area beginning in prehistoric times and continues through the abandonment of Tumacacori. The museum features, artifacts, dioramas, exhibits, and art, all depicting life around and at Tumacacori.

This display shows how the O’odham people lived before the Spanish missionaries arrived.

The priests that administered the area missions kept immaculate records of marriages, births, deaths, baptisms, and other pertinent information about the people who lived there. Today the park has a free online database of the records for anyone who wants to search them by family name. Learn more about the database, Mission 2000, here.

Handwritten records were kept by the priests.
A depiction of farming at the mission.

Residents of Tumacacori grew squash, corn, beans and other crops. Orchards were also planted, and crops were irrigated using a water diversion system called an acequia. The six wooden santos (saints) that once stood in Tumacacori’s church now reside behind glass in the park’s museum. We apologize for the glare.

Melhok Ki

Melhok ki

This melhok ki, which means ocotillo house in the O’odham language, is an example of a traditional O’odham dwelling. Melhok ki walls and roofs were constructed using the cane-like branches of the ocotillo. Sometimes mesquite branches and other woody plants found in the desert were used as well. Then once the framework was complete, the structure would be covered in mud inside and out. Some of the mission residents would have lived in traditional homes like this one while others lived in more modern adobe dwellings near the church.

Goodbye Tumacacori

This artist’s depiction shows what Tumacacori might have looked like with the completed church.

With the hardships of the Mexican-American war, increasing Apache raids, and harsh weather conditions, the last residents took their santos and left Tumacacori in 1848. Their destination was another mission that was located about 25 miles to the northwest. Sadly, the church and other buildings of Tumacacori fell victim to vandals and into disrepair. Then after 60 years of deterioration, President Theodore Roosevelt protected the site by establishing Tumacacori National Monument in 1908. When the site was redesignated as a National Historical Park in 1990, the Calabazas and Guevavi ruins came under the park’s care.


Thank you for joining us at Tumacacori!

You might also enjoy these other national park sites:

Pecos National Historical Park

New Castle, Delaware and First State National Historical Park

Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park

Safe travels, y’all!

Mike and Kellye

As always, we strive to be as accurate with our information as possible. If we made a mistake, it was unintentional. (Hey, we’re only human!) Our suggestions are for places that we’ve heard good things about but haven’t visited personally, and our opinions are our own.


Exit mobile version